Defining Failure in Language Testing

What do you feel when you grade tests? Do you cheer for the student who finally remembered the difference between stopped talking and stopped to talk? Do you cringe when you see that several students aced the matching section on your vocabulary test, but could not compose clear, accurate sentences with the same key words in another section?

What does it mean when a student fails a test? Whose failure is it really? The student’s? The teacher’s? Was the test itself at fault? There are a number of factors that must be considered in order to arrive at an explanation. I think it’s important to remember that learning is a shared experience, so both good and poor test performances are a reflection on the teacher, not just the student. The teacher can ask these questions:

  • How did the student prepare for the test? This goes beyond studying the night before the test.  Were all the homework assignments leading up to the test completed? Did the student actively participate in class and raise any questions about the topics to be tested?
  • How did I prepare the student for the test? In addition to take-home assignments, were benchmarks used in class to confirm that the student met each lesson objective? Did I give a reminder about which specific topics (units and/or sections) would be covered?
  • Did the test match what was taught in class? Were all the tasks familiar? Were there any surprises in terms of content or design?
  • Was the test fair? Were the instructions clear? Were testing conditions free of any distraction or discomfort? Did the student have enough time to complete the test? (Is it possible to be flexible on time limit? I’d argue that some students can produce clearer and more accurate language when the pressure of a time limit is reduced. I myself remember blanking out on a timed-test back in college!) Was I accurate in my corrections and consistent in my scoring?

Only when a teacher understands the reason(s) why a student performed poorly on a test can she begin to form a strategy for helping that student. If the student has yet to prove mastery of a topic, the possible courses of action include teacher review, peer tutoring, and an alternative assessment. However, it is also possible that more effort needs to be made by the teacher to understand and benefit from the intricate relationship between instruction and assessment.

For a more detailed understanding of this topic I’d recommend H. Douglas Brown’s Language Assessment.  Both novice and experienced teachers can benefit from his thorough presentation of the purpose and effectiveness of language testing in all its forms.


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